Music can be so much more enjoyable with a decent set of headphones, for a fraction of the price of a high-end Hi-Fi setup. Be careful though…once you get hooked, you won’t be able to stop looking for the ultimate listening experience!

Here’s my little collection:

AIAIAI TMA-1 (closed, supra-aural, portable)

Just arrived in the mail this week, still extensively testing. So far I’m pretty impressed with the TMA-1’s, they present a fantastic sound stage (for being closed phones), clarity and detail and possibly the most amazing and powerful bass in its class…wow. They are very comfy, have a sturdy build quality and (if you care for it) they also look great. Hats off for the Danish design team, churning out a very practical and understated piece of technology where (I quote): form follows function. They are pretty easy to drive too, so they work just as well with portable devices.

They do seem to roll off in the higher frequency spectrum though, making them sound a bit ‘dull’ or ‘muffled’ at first. At least in comparison with the Sennheiser HD-25 SP’s I’ve been using for some years now, which are a lot brighter sounding. Adjusting the headband and trying a slighly looser fit seems to open up a bit more ‘space’ and brightness. Also, there’s an ever so slight background hiss audible, probably due to the high sensitivity.

Technically, there are designed to be DJ headphones for monitoring and such, but they also happen to be excellent for Hi-Fi listening.

Sennheiser HD-25 SP (closed, supra-aural, portable)

My powerhorse of choice for the past years. Again, primarily designed to be DJ headphones and for studio work, so they offer  excellent sound reproduction, almost clinical and un-forgiving, showing every flaw in any recording. Featuring incredibly tight and fast bass, as well as presenting the rest of the spectrum very clear and detailed. Being the ‘cheapo’ version of the HD-25 II, they come with a pretty flimsy and un-attractive headband, where the ear cups slide a fair bit around when thrown into a bag or when pulling on the cable. This on the other hand makes them very lightweight and super comfy. You pretty much forget you are actually wearing them. Even with a low clamping force, you still get decent noise isolation, keeping the music in and ambient noise out.

The neutral soundscape does have its disatvantages when using for Hi-Fi listening. Soundstage is pretty much non-existent and the highs (however clear and brilliant) can cause fatigue when listening to higher volumes for longer periods of time. Still, together with my Cowon J3 it’s the perfect match for elaborate on-the-go listening, only rivaled by the TMA-1.

Audio Technica ATH-AD700 (open, circum-aural, home use)

Yes, they are massive and ugly as !*#@, but you will completely re-discover your music collection, trust me. They have an open design and made for home-use only, leaking like a sieve but that’s Ok. They provide a stellar listening experience, revealing detail and fine nuances in your favourite tracks you never knew existed. The extremely wide soundstage made me jump up quite a few times, thinking someone actually knocked on my door when it really was just a movie I am watching. Featuring a powerful but gentle bass, smooth mid’s and brilliant high’s they set a new standard in fidelity for me, of course only coupled with a good audio source and decent DAC. They did take a while to fully reach their potential, but after a few weeks of burn-in they really started to shine. A bit on the heavy side, but smooth and soft padding all over the place makes them extemely comfy to wear.

There’s not much not to like (apart from the looks), your ears can get a bit hot after extensive listening and you do want to take them off for a short break every now and then.

Atrio M8 (canal phones, portable)

Thought ear buds can only go so far? Yes! That’s why they made ‘canal’ phones, which is an in-ear design. They are small, light and essentially produce sound within your head. A tight fit is essential and is something to get used to. They come with a variety of rubber and foam tips, do some testing to find the right size and material for your liking. My primary (and so far only) use is for the gym, especially when running. If fitted properly, they stay where they are and block out any outside noise, including annoying mainstream masterpieces and grunting people around you, making you focus on your own suffering. For me it’s the only way to maintain motivation and drive. A strong, clean and surprisingly deep bass will help you in keeping your heart rate up, as well as an overall impressive sound clarity and resolution from such a tiny device. They don’t offer a real soundstage or space, but that’s expected. Did I mention they can go VERY loud and still stay sharp?

The attached price tag makes the M8’s value somewhat debatable, but so far they haven’t let me down. Enduring a lot of mistreatment, cable pulling and considerable amounts of sweat, they still do a fine job. Because of the direct contact between phone tips and ears, you hear every bit of cable movement. Tip: A little plastic clip for a few dollars attaches the branching bit of the cable firmly to the collar of my shirt, essentially ‘cutting’ the sound transfer from the cable’s long, swinging bit.

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